FATHER, directed by Yang Li Chou, is a documentary about Master Chen Hsi-huang. Master Chen is the foremost performer of Budaixi, a traditional form of puppet theatre in Taiwan, and is celebrating his 90th birthday this year. Despite his great age, he is still introduced at events as the son of Master Li, his father. Master Li Tien-Lu was a renowned puppet master and the subject of several well-regarded films himself. FATHER, as well as being a tribute to the art of Budaixi and a portrait of the state of the artform today, is also an exploration on how a father can still have such an influence over the life of his son.
One of the first things we are told about Master Chen is who his father is: this is repeated and referenced by many people throughout the documentary, even showing footage of his father from THE PUPPETMASTER, a 1994 film about him. While Master Li was famous for Budaixi, he was not close with his sons; Master Chen says he never had a conversation with his father. When Master Chen made mistakes, his father would hit him with the puppet head. When his father died Master Chen, as the oldest son, was supposed to inherit his father’s theatre company, but instead it went to his younger brother and Master Chen started his own company, perhaps as an attempt to get away from his father’s legacy. It is clear that that attempt has not been as successful as Master Chen would have liked.
Budaixi is very closely tied to Taiwan’s national identity and culture, as can be seen from the archival footage shown in the film. Budaixi is normally performed in the Taiwanese dialect, however in the past the use of that dialect has been supressed by the government, and television programmes showed Budaixi in Mandarin as a form of propaganda. The film is very cynical about the government’s support of Budaixi in the modern era, despite the efforts of the government to pay for public performances of Budaixi. The amount of money they receive is small, and there is a great deal of frustrating bureaucracy to deal with when registering Master Chen’s company for financial support. Master Chen does not charge for his lessons, and does not perform Budaixi for financial gain.
For the Master there appears to a be an almost religious respect for the artform, and the original title for the film translating as ‘the red box’ reflects that. Everywhere Master Chen goes he takes a small red box that contains the figure of General Lei, a god of puppetry. Before every performance he prays to him. Master Chen says at the beginning of the film that performing Budaixi shows respects for the gods, as well as providing entertainment for the audience; a far cry from the farcical slapstick antics of Punch and Judy.
This sacred air to the art is also on display when we are shown Master Chen’s disciples, who have come from as far as France and Italy to learn Budaixi. Master Chen is not picky about his students, he will teach anyone who will come to learn. There is an urgency to the old Master throughout the documentary; he is a very old man with a thyroid issue and diabetes, and there is no telling how long there is left for him to pass on his skills.
Despite the sense of urgency there is also a sense of defeatism and melancholy to the film, especially as it nears its end. The film took thirteen years to make, and in between the shooting of the initial footage and the completion of the film several of the performers featured died, and there is some footage of Master Chen’s protégés being very fatalistic about the future of Budaixi after Master Chen passes.
The last ten minutes is dedicated to a performance of Budaixi that was made for a hearing-impaired audience, and so contains no dialogue. The director asks the audience to watch so that even though Budaixi is disappearing it can at least be ‘glanced at’. It is a very simple story, clearly meant to show off the puppets more than to show any deeper meaning. There is a very impressive piece involving the puppets spinning a plate, and the fight scenes are entertaining. The steadiness of the puppets, especially their heads as they move, demonstrate the fine skill of the Master behind the curtain.
Overall the film is melancholic. It gives an interesting look into another culture and into the life of a man dedicated to his art. It is appealing for those familiar with Taiwanese culture, but at the heart of it the film is about a man who has dedicated his life to his father’s craft, and is now facing the loss of that: a tragic story.